Of the 359 homeowners in my area, 112 are running afoul of the law in a deviously blatant way by committing the heinous “fence offence.” In other words, the are breaching Los Angeles municipal code sections 12.21 and 12.22 which limit front yard fence and hedge height to a maximum 3 ½ feet above grade. Now that’s a lot of criminal activity for one neighborhood.
With their pens and pads, my investigative team—three 17-year-old, out-of-work babysitters—scoured my neighborhood in search of scoundrels and found one very troublesome woman. This 74 year old widow named Barbara gave them a suspicious story about how her “charming wooden slats” were installed unknowingly by her otherwise law-abiding husband in 1987. My detectives measured the “offensive picket” at a full four feet —rather than the legal 3 ½ feet above grade.
When pressed, Barbara confessed that she had just received a letter from the L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo asking her to “appear for a City Attorney hearing to determine if a criminal complaint should be issued against (her)… for an alleged (fence) violation.”
“It’s a stressful situation,” Barbara says. “It makes me feel like a felon. Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on fences that have been in place for so long?”
Fence snitches are on the rise, according to local representatives. Meddlesome neighbors or quality-of-life protectors, depending upon ones perspective, protest fences by calling the city’s toll free number anonymously to tattle on their neighbors for wrought-iron, chain link, and hedge indiscretions. Barbara’s picket caught the attention of authorities when complainants tipped off the Department of Building and Safety to another neighbor’s fence. A dozen families on the street received the ominous code violation letter.
My investigative crew told me to grab my polygraph and interrogation spotlight, and scurry to Barbara’s home for a “Guantanamo Bay style” probe. But when I arrived, I took pity on the wide-eyed senior, hinting “Have you ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, “Catch Me If You Can?”
Of course, I would never advise Barbara to creep further into the recesses of crime by snubbing Mr. Delgadillo and tossing the violation notice in the trash. And I would hate for the fence fiasco to culminate in a showdown at a dusty printing warehouse in France, all on the taxpayers’ dime.
But I wondered—merely as a philosophical exercise—what would the city do if she were a “no show” at the hearing? How would the city react if Barbara faxed them a list of the other 111 high fences in our neighborhood, or better yet, the tens of thousands in L.A.?
Two things are certain: it would take a lot of out-of-work babysitters to compile the list, and it would start a revolution. Homeowners would not be willing to dismantle fences that cost them thousands of dollars to construct.
Whistle-blowing Barbara could then create a directory of every property with any sort of code violation. In fact, we have one now: it’s called the phone book.
As a Realtor for the past 17 years, I have never sold a home that complies with every Building and Safety rule. There are enclosed patios and guest houses that are not “built to code.” There are water heaters, roofs, and air conditioners that have been installed without permits. It can be illegal to park too many vehicles in the driveway or store too many items in the garage.
Due to a number of break-ins in the area, Barbara wants to retain her picket for security. Fence proponents tout other benefits, such as increased privacy and the flexibility to transform front yards into grassy play areas for kids and pets, especially when pools swallow up the rear of a lot. Hill-adjacent properties as well as those that have succumbed to expansion or mansionization may not have room for a yard without enclosing the front.
Too many years have passed and too many fences have been built for Los Angeles to attempt a perilous, impractical and, costly u-turn back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days when neighborhoods had unobstructed front lawns. One third of all home-owning Angelenos cannot and should not be inputted into a “fence offender database.”
The Barbaras of this city should not be frightened by official notices, turned into scofflaws, and labeled “casualties of the process,” as one fence snitch calls her.
The city could encourage residents to drape existing fences with greenery to capture the pastoral quality of the yesteryear or require them to contribute $100 annually to a neighborhood beautification fund in return for the right to ignore the law.
The city could even change the law to accommodate higher fences and mature hedges. After all, an owner has paid for her front yard, so she should, within reason, be able to use it as she pleases.
The “fence” controversy has traveled beyond Los Angeles to the California communities of Burbank, Santa Monica, Richmond, and Glendale where angry homeowners have flocked to city council meetings—often breaking attendance records—to voice their dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be arcane and restrictive rules. The issue is likely to continue weaving its way across America since most communities limit front-yard fence heights to three to four feet while property owners routinely disregard the laws.
As I said good-bye to infamous L.A. picket, Barbara whispered in my ear.
“Don’t tell Mr. Delgadillo, but I wish my fence were higher. Then I could take out my trash in my nightie.”
I nodded. “Why should a person have to get dressed just to walk out her own front door?”
Published in the Los Angeles Times in August 2005, the Santa Monica Daily Press on August 26, 2005, the Burbank Leader on August 27, 20015, Apartment Age Magazine in January 2006, and in the Canyon News on August 28, 2005.